The clues come last: a step-by-step guide to creating crossword puzzles

Constructing a crossword is not as hard as you think!

Constructing a crossword is not as hard as you think!

Tass and Lita Williams have been solving puzzles for more than 40 years and have recently been constructing puzzles. (Lake Tide Media)

Dream a theme

When it comes to dreaming up a crossword puzzle, there are some simple rules to follow. 

"First and foremost, you have to have a good theme," says Lita Williams from Dartmouth, N.S., who constructs crosswords with her sister Tass. A theme is something constructors can have fun with, playing with words while imparting their own personality into a puzzle. 

"I find my crossword themes everywhere and anywhere," Tass says. The sisters, along with other crossword constructors, explain how to build a crossword in Across and Down, a documentary from The Passionate Eye

Get your grid on

The New York Times is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the beloved puzzle. It accepts submissions from crossword constructors around the world, publishing them in the newspaper's Arts section. 

Once the theme is in place, it's time to build the grid. A standard crossword grid is 15 x 15 squares, with room for letters and black squares. "They have to be symmetrical," Lita notes in the documentary. "So if you rotate a grid 180 degrees, the black squares will be in the same locations."


"Visual appeal," says Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword. "A grid that's symmetrical is more pleasing, aesthetically more likely to draw the solver in." 

Watch the video below to see how some constructors approach puzzle building. 

How to construct a crossword | Across and Down

11 months ago
Duration 2:25
Expert constructors explain the process for creating your very own crossword puzzle. First step: come up with a theme.

Find your fill

Next comes the fill, – what some people might call the answers – followed by the clues. 

Remember: no one- or two-letter words. Why?

"That's because there aren't that many of them," says Shortz. "Like 'to,' 'of,' 'in.' They're not very interesting … so, the rule is three letters is the minimum."

Certain answers from the fill, usually the longest words, relate back to the theme of the crossword, incorporating a puzzle within a puzzle. 

Leave your clues for last

The final step: writing the clues.

 "Clueing. It's something that takes a lot of practice," says Soleil St. Cyr, a Harvard student from New Jersey and the youngest woman to ever publish a New York Times crossword. But this is where the constructor's perspective can come into play. 

However the newspaper normally edits the clues that constructors submit, sometimes altering the original meaning. "My biggest beef has always been clues that make very overt assumptions," says Nate Cardin, a constructor and private school teacher. 

Many constructors are fighting for better representation in crossword clues. Traditional crossword clues often make assumptions about who is solving them, reinforcing stereotypes or making racial slurs in some cases. "You can be thoughtful in the clues and the answers that are in the puzzles to make it that when people solve it, they don't feel othered," says Cardin.

A growing growing group of crossword enthusiasts believe puzzles need to reflect the diversity of the people who solve them. Meet some of them in Across and Down, now streaming on CBC Gem.

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